Essay by Aidan Celeste (participant Summer School 2016 in Rotterdam)
In Ariadne Quarter
Log on to the Kunstblock website and switch the language from Dutch to English. By doing so, Google Translate adopts in Ariadne Quarter for het Witte de Withkwartier. Ariadne led Theseus away from a minotaur and its labyrinth by placing a line of thread at the front of the gate. While the myth celebrates blind love and dexterity, the plot revolves around the figure of a designer, one who hacks a complex maze with a simple tool, as a gift, and saves our hero from reaching a dead end.
An online query for #rotterdam provides a list of staff reports and press statements that dictate the narrative of its rebirth, the global minotaur, and its role as a port city. Historically, I’m also supposed to tell you that Rotterdam was flattened in the Second World War and instead of using the past to rebuild and restore, the past is used as a good reason to play with the future of architecture. Rotterdam is now going on seventy-five years and the playful idea of a fictional quarter such as Ariadne’s can read a lot like a tarot card of a small city and its international ambition. Much like the interpretation of Google Translate, this could also be an involuntary error that leads us astray. However, to play along with this vision of Rotterdam, how does our own automata of thought, intuitive memory, fare against the demands of history?
In het Witte De Withkwartier
The artist duo Bik Van der Pol invited Open Set for a personal account of the arts in the same quarter. Their interpretation started with the expo ‘WERE IT IS AS IF’, the second step in a programme celebrating the 25-year legacy of our mutual host, Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art. The intervention allowed each artist to survey the institute's history and compile a checklist of artefacts that are now on display on the second floor of the same building. Each object of art is neatly placed on a circuit of metal shelves and used by a series of guest speakers to tell their own story about the centre. The viewer can listen to the tour and/or walk around each circuit across two distinct halls, one on the left side of the building and the other on right, and thus go on to examine an array of objects at a glance, or zoom in for a close-up at will.
Except for a tradition that obliges every visitor at a museum to step away from the object of art and non toccare, there is no glass barrier or vitrine, nor a formal label that is ready to dictate the meaning of each and every object on this display. The artists Bik Van der Pol refuse this mode of conduct. Instead, the setup of the exhibition is simple and its title is made to propose a condition for interpretation. This provides an explicit gap of information, one that can be filled with a personal account; first of an object, and then of an object of art curated by a guest speaker. True, it is still frustrating to stand there and not know what it is you’re looking at, but it is in this gap that memory can take over history. In contrast to our brief encounters as outsiders, the three speakers invited to give a tour hang on to this memory and articulate its legacy with a personal account of each expo at every interval.
The three guests are selected by the centre, and as a collective, create a shared memory of a place that we mostly know through hearsay, this exhibition, and an ad hoc list of resources. However, what would a curator from Worm, Showroom Mama, V2_Institute, or CBK Rotterdam produce in response to, say, the single bottle of red Perseverance (Atelier Van Lieshout) from the opening ceremony of Tent in 2014? If dialogue is not sufficient, it is still possible to interpret the impact of one specific exposition by presenting another object of art from the Kunstblock’s memory. If not from its real history, it could be an imaginary object, or another version of the same concept made elsewhere that can nevertheless elicit another future. As an ad hoc group of artists, designers and DIY tinkerers from all over the globe, plurality and collaboration are one of the many ethical parameters we questioned in a set of workshops with Open Set and the other institutes on the Kunstblock.
Once the exhibition is open to the public, and picked up as a conversation or as an organised tour, ‘WERE IT IS AS IF’ becomes an intermediary for memory. What the artists provide is an interval. This allows ample space for exploitation and encourages a personal interpretation geared towards a new idea of the future as opposed to an empirical presentation about its past. It is from the privileged position of working with the arts that design can also tamper with historical fact and instead, establish a place for non-fiction.
It is a Prototype
In design terminology, ‘WERE IT IS AS IF’ is the ultimate error of the institute’s archive. It is not a finished product or a complete history. It has missing parts, mock objects, details that are still not identified, facsimiles, notes on paper, programmes, ephemera, and all sorts of innocent documents reproduced for the occasion. It is in its vulnerability that memory emphasizes one aspect and forgets the other, such that any other personal testimony is essential in order to identify what is significant. In effect, this is how the artists Bik Van der Pol provoke a legacy, or a myth, that is indebted to the institute’s history as much as the work of its artists, its curators, and their memory in concert.
To explore this tension between fact and fiction, Open Set focused on how workshops can use memory to exorcise the past and develop ideas into the future. Dr Sebastian Groes (UK) introduced the memory palace, a classical technique from the Renaissance that served scholarship as a conceptual aid to categorise, retrieve information, and heighten the illusion of clarity. It is a very useful method of coping with a barrage of media over the web, a labyrinth that we are all familiar with in this day and age. Other speakers, such as Rick Poynor (UK) and Els Kuijpers (NL) focused on the tension that results from interrupting the pre-set models of how such a labyrinth can work against narrow classifications. Their approach applied the dialogic process of editing to a collection of images for the purpose of creating a visual narrative without a single destination. However, with all our misgivings about the readymade limits of design platforms, hyperlinks, online apps, and the ever so easy distinction between linear history and its dialogic counterpart, some of us opted to break our own automata of thought with a voluntary error against memory.
A selection of these prototypes are listed below.
Prototype 1: The climbing frame in this picture was designed to be installed in a public playground and to introduce instability into a repetitive obstacle course. The monkey bars are uneven and impossible to swing through from start to finish. If you do volunteer to take part, the only option is to try, fall off, and decide whether to fall off again, or to go on to the safer choices in the playground. The narrative implies that the error is useful for building resilience and can be dealt with with the most minor of accidents.
Prototype 2: The performance was designed to greet a sci-fi scenario with an alien encounter. In order to do so, Cristina Noguer and Jonathan Castro decided to focus on their intuitive skills and build empathy through music. Once their noise stirred a reaction from the guest playing the role of the alien, the musicians made further eye contact to let the alien turn the performance into something easy to listen to and establish a peaceful ‘welcome’.
Prototype 3: The moving image features a sequence of images that were clipped together as a diorama and used explicit glitches that pixilate the transition between each frame.
The diorama pictured above depicts the Anthropocene era and its fallout. It was created by the participants to inspire empathy among humankind and cooperation between the arts and the sciences. Romantic notions of science are usually played down, or at least, are less evident than they are in the arts. By explicitly presenting a fictional scenario of this era and its fallout, the Anthropocene is presented as an ethical choice we have to make as opposed to a technical problem we have to solve.
The audience, including myself, were somewhat stunned by how immersive simple techniques can be. For instance, as opposed to the complicated presentation of a visual story in a dialogic format with multiple points of focus, the diorama presents a linear sequence of images that are a bit less specific and thus, still open to a different reading.
Bio: Aidan Celeste is interested in collections and how we organise information with a personal encounter. In the past two years he has participated in several festivals and programmed a series of art house films in Malta and at the odd cinema abroad. He recently moved to the Netherlands to study curating with emerging media. In Rotterdam he joined V2_ as an archivist in training and was invited to assist the senior curator in the development of ‘Data in the 21st Century’, an exhibition about our everyday relationship with big data. During this project he coordinated its production and curated a select list of projects, including HIT (2016), a performance by the artists Max Dovey and Manetta Berends. Celeste’s interest in curating is twofold. He is a trained archivist with a loyalty to the artist’s original intent, and a curator who wants to exploit the object of art with the audience and their own interpretation.